Ólafur Arnalds admits that, at age 10, he didn’t know what a producer was, but it’s all he ever wanted to be. “The guy behind the scenes, who does everything but doesn’t need to get his face on the front cover,” recalls Ólafur, who at a young age would scour album sleeves to discover which producers worked on which records. “I would always see the same producers working with different bands. They each had their own sound, and for me that was really interesting.”
Ólafur began his musical career as a drummer, playing in several Icelandic metal bands. “I was very involved with the hardcore punk scene in Iceland and I recorded a lot of the now legendary punk albums of that time.” His first proper recording system was a computer with one of the first versions of Cubase, hooked up to a small mixer and a simple sound card. Ólafur used this, and a handful of SM57s, to hone his recording skills, and made a name for himself. But the piano had consistently been an influence in his life. “There was always a piano at my house and I had been playing that since I was very young. In my early teens I started getting into film scores and soundtracks, and I discovered this totally emotional aspect of music that I hadn’t found before. I remember films that had a big impact on me, like The Green Mile, A Beautiful Mind, and Requiem For A Dream, and I started experimenting with classical instruments in some of my initial compositions.”
Ólafur continued his explorations in arrangement and composition, and in 2007 released his debut studio album, Eulogy For Evolution. Here, he blended hauntingly beautiful piano and strings with epic synths and rock-inspired drums. In doing so, like the producers he idolised as a kid, he cemented a sonic identity that can be heard in all his work, from his soundtrack to the TV show Broadchurch, to his techno project Kiasmos.
A piece is not only a combination of notes, it's not only chord progressions, it's how it sounds.
During these formative years, Ólafur not only established his trademark sound, but also forged a certain formality in songwriting. “I find that I cannot write a piece without knowing what it’s going to sound like first. So for example, if I sit down at an upright piano I’m going to write a totally different piece than if I sit down at a Steinway grand, because the sound of that piano is a part of the composition. It’s a totally different response, a totally different clarity and it’ll do different things. So sound comes first for me: there is no piece without the final sound; a piece is not only a combination of notes, it’s not only chord progressions, it’s how it sounds.”
He tours with three analogue synthesisers, each of which has a specific use. Together with keys player Bergur Þórisson, Ólafur has fought against practicality pressures, and opted to keep what he describes as the “certain unpredictability in analogue machines which is what gives them their character.” They use the Novation Bass Station II to provide rich, deep bass tones to complement the live instrumentation on stage. Ólafur adds, “it stays really on point and in tune, and it doesn’t give us any troubles. Very often when you work with these really deep frequencies you get a lot of mud and stuff, but for this scenario we want something really clear and sharp.”
With Kiasmos, his minimal techno project with Faroese producer Janus Rasmussen, Ólafur sends audio through the Bass Station II’s filter, and also uses the synth as a MIDI controller to play various software instruments. Novation’s Launchpad Mini and Launch Control XL also play a role in the live setup, as Ólafur explains: “We’re travelling to lots of festivals in the summer with a more compact setup where the Novation controllers have really come in handy. We want to have real stuff with real buttons that you can touch, but at the same time stuff that doesn’t get destroyed when you go on a flight, and we’ve found that it’s just really well-built stuff that we know isn’t going to break.”
We want to have real stuff with real buttons that you can touch.
At Novation, we’re incredibly proud to be working with Ólafur, a figurehead in the new breed of multi-instrumentalist songwriter/producers whose work is inspiring an entire musical genre. If this is your first encounter with him or his music, and you want to explore more, head to his website, where you will find his back catalogue. The TV show Broadchurch, scored by Ólafur and a close group of collaborators — which is on Netflix in several countries — is made magical by its dramatic combination of visuals and music, and is definitely worth a watch. If you’re into the deeper, techno-tinged side of music, the eponymous 2014 Kiasmos album is something you’ll want to check out.
Words and pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright